By Nick Cumming-Bruce
BANGKOK As many as 84 people are known to have died as a result of military action against rioters in predominantly Muslim southern Thailand, exposing Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to fresh criticism of his handling of security in the area and raising fears of more violence to come.
At least 78 people were suffocated or crushed to death after being arrested and crammed into military lorries following a riot in the southern Thai province of Naratiwat, officials said Tuesday. Six people were killed during the riot, according to earlier reports, bringing the apparent death toll to 84.
Autopsies by a team of doctors on 78 bodies collected at an army camp showed that most of the victims had died of suffocation, said Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunan, a forensics expert working for the Justice Ministry. The finding transformed what had appeared to be an ugly security incident into a tragedy that seems certain to inflame tensions and to intensify already widespread local resentment of the government.
The 78 detainees may have suffocated "because we had more than 1,300 people packed into the six-wheel trucks," Major General Sinjai Nujsathit, deputy commander of the military in the south, told reporters. Press reports from the scene of the riot showed those who had been arrested lying on the ground with their hands roped behind their backs before they were taken away.
"I am in shock," Abdulraman Abdulsamad, the chairman of the Islamic Council of Narathiwat province, where the violence erupted, told The Associated Press. "I cannot say what will happen, but I believe hell will break out."
The riot erupted Monday after several thousand people gathered at a police station to demand the release of six men arrested on suspicion of seizing weapons stolen from a military base earlier this year and distributing them to Islamic militants. Earlier reports said the six people who were killed in the riot had died in a melee after troops used automatic weapons, tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd as it attacked the police station, hurling rocks and overturning military and police vehicles. Military officers said troops had fired only into the air. Thai newspaper reports said that all six victims had suffered bullet wounds. Initial reports also said that only about 300 people had been arrested and taken for questioning.
Thaksin flew to Narathiwat with the defense and interior ministers on Monday after the riot to examine the situation, underscoring his concern over the threat to security in the south, where the government has faced a steady rise in violent attacks this year on a widening range of targets.
Speaking before news had come out of the detainees' deaths, he took a tough line, describing those involved in the violence as supporting separatism in the predominantly Muslim southern states bordering Malaysia. "We have no choice but to use force against them," he said.
But the heavy casualty toll will embarrass the government. It comes barely a fortnight after Thaksin sacked his defense minister, saying that the sole objective of the cabinet shuffle was "getting the job done, including in the south."
"Instead of using soft policies and a more sophisticated approach, the government is using violence, and that will aggravate the situation," said Somjai Paghaphasvivat, a politics lecturer and commentator at Thamasat University. "Using violence will only create more and more people sympathetic to separatists. I think the government will have to consider a new approach."
The latest casualties bring to more than 350 the number of people who have died in violence in the south this year. Many of the casualties have occurred in what have become almost daily shootings or attacks, but the military has also inflicted heavy casualties. In the worst previous incident this year, in April, military clashes in a series of locations, including a mosque, resulted in more than a hundred deaths in a single day.
That violence brought sharp criticism of the government for its heavy-handed tactics and for its lack of a coherent strategy for calming the situation and re-establishing security. Thaksin said later that excessive force might have been used but human rights advocates said no one had been penalized as a result and the latest trouble would revive calls for action.
The foreign minister of neighboring Malaysia, Syed Hamid Albar, expressed concern and regret over the "accident" in southern Thailand and said his government would be watching events.